How many times will a man attempt to escape from an island prison in spite of the fact that with the first attempt, he will be placed in solitary confinement for two years and each subsequent attempt will earn him an additional year added to the initial amount of time? In the film Papillon, released in 1973 and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, the title character makes three attempts. According to those who made the film, which was based on the book; the actual number was nine. Do the math. Papillon spent a majority of his life sentence in solitary confinement.
True, there is some of that spent in relative freedom and that is shown in the film, but the most interesting aspect of this film is not the attempts themselves, but the extent to which Papillon, portrayed by Steve McQueen plans each escape only for the majority of them to fail and land him right back where he was trying to leave in the first place.
So then; why, after a multitude of failed escapes would he continue a seemingly fruitless endeavor? It could be that he has nothing better do, or he enjoys the challenge. The latter is in fact how McQueen portrays his character. Indeed, each plan of flight from the inescapable prison becomes more and more elaborate. From making an all out run for it, to filling a burlap bag with coconuts as a makeshift raft and jumping into the sea from a cliff.
A long the way, Papillon conspires with compatriots and sympathizers to his predicament. After all, Papillon’s single motivation is the fact that he is an innocent man wrongly accused of murder. By all means, this would be a reason for anyone of us to have the inclination to abdicate from captivity. Papillon’s apparent innocence is the cause for his fellow inmates commiseration to the idea of liberation.
Not only fellow prisoners, but even some conscripted to enforce the resolute confinement of the penitentiary appear willing to aide our would be escapist. Perchance they find it amusing and only do so for entertainment amidst the melancholy of their daily routine. This penchant for insincere support is illustrated in a scene where Papillon, Luis Dega-a part specifically created for Dustin Hoffman-and one other convict arrive at a location where a boat and supplies are said to be placed, only to discover that said provisions are either fake or in such ill repair as to be ineffective.
As if by grace a new ally emerges to accommodate Papillon and his companions with a better means of transport and the trio eludes capture. At least until they reach land fall. The flight to freedom turns into a blunder as they almost literally stumble upon a group of police from another country who are escorting a prisoner of their own. The situation worsens when Papillon hurls an ax at the men, resulting in one guards death. Luis Dega is wounded and can’t run away and the third member of their tiny troupe is wounded by gunfire, leaving Papillon to his own devices. Especially once the prisoner belonging to the new set of guards mets a savage demise.
At this point in the film, we are certain that Papillon has accomplished his goal. After some time passes, another bungle by the antagonist leads the Frenchman straight into the waiting jaws of the Spanish police who ship him to the French prison from which he had gone AWOL. Maybe this will finally convince the man that avoiding his prison time just is not going to happen. For the third time escape is thwarted and our upstart hero is thrust back into solitary and when we see him again, he’s an old man.
One would think that being old would slow such a man as Papillon down. Not likely. Instead he continues his quest for freedom despite being reunited with Louis, whom he had thought to be dead. It is here that we see just how calculating Papillon is as he studies the tide patterns of the small and very dangerous cove near his dwelling quarters and discovers an incredibly risky chance at freedom-if he can only manage to elude the inevitability of being dashed across the rocks below. We will live this bit a mystery as to persuade those reading this to view Papillon.
Although Papillon appears to be a sprawling drama, it is in truth a comedy of errors. This is evident by the number of failures Papillon endures in spite of-perhaps in mockery- of his apparent cleverness, reducing him in those moments to a blunderer. One may feel sad for the man who continuously beats feet for the wide open world, refusing to stay in his cage, but will find the absurdity of it all worth a few chuckles minimum.
Whether it is to see Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in roles that seem unlikely in contrast to their repertoire, the immaculate cinematography, or to simply view a classic film, Papillon is a cinematic adventure, which merits inspection.